On the last day of school, my teacher let me stay in the classroom all by myself during lunch. I was a well-behaved student, and she trusted me. Once I was alone, I opened a cabinet, pulled out a dictionary and a fifth-grade social studies book titled American Nation, and put them in my backpack. I also took a couple of erasers, some pencils, and a ruler.
When the teacher returned with the rest of the class, she asked all of us to sit down so we could watch a movie. I wiggled in my seat and wiped the sweat from my hands. When the bell rang, I picked up my backpack and sped out of class.
I ran all the way home—past the liquor store, the furniture store with the creepy salesmen, and the nudie bar—and slammed the front door behind me. I opened my backpack and admired the thickness of the dictionary and the rustle of its pages; I touched the glossy cover of the social studies textbook, with its pictures of smiling Americans. I smelled the new erasers and then placed them in a drawer with the ruler and the pencils.
At five o’clock, when my father came home, I held up the dictionary and American Nation and said, “Dad, look what the teacher gave me!”
“What are they?” he asked in Spanish.
“This is a book to look up what words mean and how they’re spelled, and this one is about the U.S.”
He sat down with the social studies book and asked me to look up could in the dictionary. I found it, and Dad marveled at the idiosyncrasies of English spelling. When he returned the books to me, he said, “Guardalos bien.” Take good care of them.
At least once a week thereafter, my dad would ask me a question about something he’d encountered in the newspaper, at work, or in a conversation. “Denise, where’s the state of Utah?” he might ask, and I would run to look up the answer. He and I read about U.S. geography, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence—all the facts you needed to know for the citizenship test. Those two books became our family library.
Last March I finally threw the books out. The dictionary’s cover was missing, and the social studies book had water damage. Before committing them to the trash, I took a long look and remembered how my desire for them had blinded me to the possible consequences. I also recalled all the information the books had given me. I decided they had been worth stealing.
Reprinted from the Sun’s Readers Write section (April 2008), which features nonfiction vignettes on predetermined themes. The Sunpublishes essays, stories, interviews, poetry, and photographs. It won the 2007 Utne Independent Press Award for best writing; www.thesunmagazine.org.